The sale of the Western New York Flash's professional franchise to North Carolina raised questions about the future of the organization in Buffalo, but owner Joe Sahlen, president Alex Sahlen and vice president Aaran Lines have forged ahead by continuing to build the Flash's premier youth academy.
Within the last three years, the Flash Academy has excelled at placing girls soccer players at high-level college programs. Maddie Pezzino, who began her premier tenure at Empire United but finished with the Flash, was recruited to Florida State. Amanda Burns went on to national runners up West Virginia, while Riley Bowers, Marissa Birzon and Maddy Lowe will be Ohio State Buckeyes in the fall.
Never has Western New York seen such a swarm of players recruited to these major programs.
And, in some respects, the departure of the NWSL team might actually benefit the youth soccer community in Buffalo. More resources have been and will be poured into the Flash's soccer pyramid - entry into the Elite Clubs National League and the birth of a United Women's Soccer team are examples - while an increased emphasis on growing the boys' side should quickly balance the academy over the next few years.
BN Soccer sat down with Flash Academy director of coaching Rob Ferguson, hired a year ago after a long stint at Lonestar Soccer Club in Texas, to learn how the organization is structured to develop top youth players in the area.
The Flash are intensely focused on day-by-day development in a competitive environment, producing players who approach a passing drill with the same vigor as the 85th minute of a top-level match. Taking direction from player feedback, the Flash aim to prepare their players for college soccer. In 2017, 21 graduating Flash Academy players have signed with colleges at various levels.
Ferguson stresses the Flash's focus on the mental side of the game - not just technical, tactical and physical; there's a concerted effort to fuel a competitive desire to win in each player, a toughness that doesn't waver in adversity. The director of coaching views development and winning as not mutually exclusive; "if the development is right, winning will happen," he explained.
Collaboration with house league programs:
As is common with local premier clubs, the Flash work alongside nearby house leagues, particularly West Seneca Soccer Club, Kenmore Soccer Club, Enchanted Mountain and Fort Erie. The focus is on educating those clubs' coaches and offering skills clinics, as well as identifying young players who could be fits for the WNY Flash Academy.
WNY Flash Junior Academy (6-10 years old, split into boys and girls):
The Flash Junior Academy incorporates roughly 70 players for two 12-week sessions, split into the fall and spring. Junior Academy players train twice per week at Sahlen Sports Park or West Seneca Soccer Complex with small-sided games on Saturdays. One clever twist is that coaches separate players into different teams each week, challenging kids to learn to adjust often to teammates with different strengths.
According to the Flash Academy's player development zones, this age bracket learns basic technique and how to enjoy the game of soccer.
Some of the Flash's older top-level players are encouraged to coach in the Junior Academy sessions, perhaps igniting a passion for coaching down the road.
Helpful link: The Flash Academy's teams and coaches for the 2017 season that nears conclusion. Coaches typically stay with the same group for two years - to foster continuity - before another academy coach takes over.
Flash Academy (10-12 years old, split into boys and girls):
Advanced Flash Jr. Academy players may be challenged with early entry into the WNY Flash Academy, where the boys and girls teams compete in 7 vs. 7 or 9 vs. 9 matches in the Buffalo & Western New York Junior Soccer League or the New York West Thruway League.
While there's some wiggle room, these three years are a key part of the ladder on the girls side, determining whether players are better suited for the first teams, which compete in the Elite Clubs National League, or the second teams, which compete in three regional leagues. Tryouts for all teams are slated for the week of July 10; more information can be found here.
Top Flash teams in Elite Clubs National League (girls only, for now, 13-18 years old):
The Flash's acceptance into the Elite Clubs National League is a milestone for the club. When U.S. Soccer began the Development Academy system for the boys in 2007, it offered no comparable setup on the girls side.
Exceptional girls clubs in the U.S. banded together to fill the void, forming a top-tier league called the ECNL, which has existed since 2009 and now boasts nearly 4,000 alumni in NCAA Division I. Ferguson calls the ECNL the "top girls league in the world."
The Flash's first teams, from U-14 through U-18, are competing in the ECNL for the first time. This year's U-13s - classified as '04s under U.S. Soccer's new framework - compete in the pre-ECNL, while next year's U-13s will play in the full ECNL as the league expands into that age group. The '04s (U-14) sit in third place out of 14 teams - easily the best among the Flash's ECNL squads.
All of the Flash teams play in the league's Northeast Conference as one of four clubs hailing from New York, although the other three are based much closer to New York City. Next year, the Flash will join the Ohio Valley Division of the Mid-Atlantic Conference, which should save money on travel, as foes reside in Ohio, Indiana and Maryland.
One perk of ECNL membership is the opportunity to compete in national showcases; the Flash, from the '99s to the '02s, have traveled to Florida, Texas and New Jersey this year for tournaments under the watch of roughly 300 college coaches.
The Flash ECNL squads train three times per week at Sahlen's, with matches on most weekends, either home (West Seneca Soccer Complex) or away. In terms of season length, the schedule varies by the weather - if it's a mild fall, matches will run into early December. Otherwise, there might be a heavier slate in the spring.
For instance, the Flash girls '04 pre-ECNL and '03 ECNL teams began play Sept. 10, 2016, and concluded the fall portion of the schedule on Nov. 20, playing 14 matches in between the two dates. The final 12 contests in the schedule are then completed between April 1 and June 4.
For 2016-17, only these two teams played an extended fall schedule - the other Flash age groups in the ECNL play all but two of their games from March 25 to June 4.
Flash Academy (13-18 years old):
If a player isn't selected for the club's ECNL teams, the Flash Academy's second teams still compete at a high level. In 2017, the Flash fielded three second teams - U-12, U-13 and U-14/15; the latter two compete in Region I of U.S. Youth Soccer's Eastern Regional League (ERL) and all take part in the Thruway League.
Training is as intensive for the Flash's ERL teams as their ECNL first teams; the ERL sides train three times each week, in addition to games, from the end of February through June.
Activity picks back up again in mid to late August, where ERL sides train three times each week until January. In January and February, like the ECNL squads, the teams train twice weekly on the field and once in the STA Performance area of Sahlen's, which focuses on dynamic exercises to build strength.
Girls who excel on the second teams get a look at the ECNL squads as they develop.
For the 2016-17 season, the cost per player ranged from $1,150 to $2,450, depending on age, frequency of training and league. Further details may be found here.
The Flash in Boys ECNL in 2018-19:
The WNY Flash Academy previously included boys up through U-12, when they were encouraged to continue playing with Buffalo Soccer Academy (BSA), which also trained at Sahlen's, before the Flash Academy incorporated BSA into its organization last month.
Henrik Ambarchian, formerly the director of coaching at BSA, will play a key role in building the boys side of the Flash, working alongside junior director of coaching Gary Bruce. Although the boys side of the Flash is considerably behind the girls, the club aims to have a balance as soon as it can - the assimilation of BSA is a major step in that direction.
Beginning in 2017-18, the Flash Academy will field boys teams from U-8 to U-18, spending the next year and change competing in local and regional leagues before entering the brand-new Boys ECNL, in the league's second season (2018-19).
High school soccer:
Ferguson doesn't discourage Flash Academy players from participating in high school soccer - for some players, it can be a key part of their development as athletes and people. Taking part in both is permissible under ECNL guidelines, and while academy players are advised on what coaches believe is best for them, it's ultimately their choice.
"Playing for their high schools doesn't hurt [them] as players," he said. "There are more games, and they enjoy it. They love repping their school."
From a time standpoint, juggling both leads to logistical challenges for families, but it's been done and the Flash are willing to accommodate.
United Women's Soccer and National Premier Soccer League:
The Flash's top-level team on the girls side will compete in United Women's Soccer, a fledgling women's amateur league. Because there's no age limit for this squad, head coach Gary Bruce may select top players from the oldest ECNL academy team as well as academy graduates looking for a place to compete over the summer in preparation for college soccer in the fall.
Even Flash Academy coaches, such as Brittany Heist and Kelsey Ferguson, both added to the UWS team last week, may be chosen to represent the Flash. Here's more information on the Flash's entrance into the league, their head coach and their first player signed.
Although it has yet to be officially announced, the Flash have become the official youth club for FC Buffalo, the men's team that competes in the National Premier Soccer League. Although details are sparse, the collaboration gives the Flash a top to the pyramid on the boys side.
Look back at Part I of the "Know Your Premier Club" series: